Facing possible TCEQ fines, Cleveland agrees to new contract for sewer plant cleanup

Mark Vines with Synagro explains that the original estimate of biosolids in the west wastewater basin turned out to be incorrect, so Synagro was unable to complete all work without an additional contract with the city.

City leaders in Cleveland Tuesday, in a 3-1 vote, agreed to a $149,000 contract with Baltimore, Md.-based Synagro to complete a basin cleaning project at the west wastewater plant. The approval followed much discussion regarding the original contract with Synagro for $221,000, which was only enough to cover a portion of the entire project.

The city is in a bind to finish up the basin cleaning project quickly to comply with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which had previously found the city in violation.

“It feels good to be able to move forward and take care of this project, and put it behind us. The main thing I’ve been worried about is TCEQ. Those violations can be steep and we don’t need to pay a violation if we can more forward and get it taken care of,” said City Manager Kelly McDonald after the meeting.

Councilman Mike Penry, who was the sole vote against approving the contract with Synagro, believes the city got a raw deal and the entire cleanup should have been handled in the original bid with Synagro.

“Somebody missed it by $149,000. I am sure they are going to blame the city for missing that,” said Councilman Mike Penry.

McDonald explained that the original core sample taken by a separate company had estimated a certain tonnage of biosolids that needed to be removed from the wastewater plant, dried and then taken to a landfill. The sample was taken prior to last year’s Hurricane Harvey, which McDonald said created more issues at the plant.

“When they started working through the process, they found there was more sand and grit in the biosolids than what was originally thought. We think that happened during the flooding of Hurricane Harvey,” she said.

Penry questioned why the city had only received two bids for the project despite letters being sent to 16 different vendors and the project being posted in legal ads. He suggested there might be a flaw in the way the project was being bid out by the city.

McDonald assured him that was not the case. The problem, she said, is that vendors have more work than they can take on as a result of Harvey.

“If you recall, I did call on some of the vendors to see why they had not bid. It was because of the magnitude of work going on because of Harvey. They could not take on another project. They told us to keep them in mind for other projects,” she said.

With the threat of fines being assessed by TCEQ, approving the project was imperative, said Mayor Otis Cohn.

“Folks, it’s not an ideal situation because we are under a penalty assessment watch by TCEQ. I think if we dawdle around enough that TCEQ will start assessing a penalty. I think that will hurt us worse than any contractor price,” Cohn said.

According to McDonald, the fines could be as much as $20,000 per day as long as the city was not in compliance with TCEQ.

When a vote was taken, Council members Marilyn Clay, Jennifer Bergman Harkness and Danny Lee voted in favor while Penry voted against it. Councilman Fred Terrell was absent from the meeting.

Money for the second part of the contract will come from the city’s water and sewer fund, according to McDonald, though it might require a budget amendment.

The contractor is expected to start the final stage of the wastewater plant cleanup as soon as the contract is signed and weather permits. Synagro’s senior operations manager, Mark Vine, projected that the cleanup could take roughly 10 days.

In other business, the city approved a bid for cutting hay on 100 acres at Cleveland Municipal Airport.  The bid is to mow the airport grounds three times per year and the company will pay the city for the hay.

“If we get enough hay, I could get my splash pad,” said Councilwoman Jennifer Bergman Harkness, who has advocated for a children’s splash pad in the municipal park on SH 321.

Bergman joked that she was going to be at the airport counting every roll of hay. The city council previously expressed interest in the splash pad but so far has been unable to fund it.

Council also approved authorizing city staff to proceed with a request for proposals for a new media system for the Cleveland Civic Center.

“The replacement costs are going to be above $50,000, so we have to bid the project,” McDonald explained.

Sewer rates in Cleveland will be going up after Tuesday’s meeting in which council agreed to a modest increase.

“The average bill for a residential [account] using 6,000 would be an additional $1.50. That’s the same amount for commercial at 6,000 gallons – $1.50. It will increase by $0.25 per 1,000 gallons,” explained Asst. City Manager and Financial Director Bobby Pennington. “There is a cap on residential of 15,000 and no cap on commercial.”

Penry, who voted against the increase, prefaced the vote by saying he actually was in agreement with raising rates but would vote against any increase on principle. His objection, he said, was based on the city raising the tax rate in September, which increased the burden on property owners.

Council was expected to discuss the city’s manager’s job performance and compensation in executive session, but that was tabled for a future date when all members of council are present.

By Vanesa Brashier, editor@bluebonnetnews.com

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